Accepted paper:

Depopulation and environmental sustainability in Japan's rural townscapes


Peter Siegenthaler (Texas State University)

Paper short abstract:

This research relies on promotional materials, maps, and journalistic articles to investigate relationships among depopulation, tourism promotion, sustainability and the effects of preservation activists' interventions toward the conservation of heritage architecture in two hamlets in rural Japan.

Paper long abstract:

It is widely understood that Japan's machinami hozon (townscape preservation) movement derives in large part from a localized sense of crisis in the 1960s concerning effects of depopulation on Japan's countryside. In two of the most prominent examples of townscape preservation efforts, Tsumago post-town in Nagano prefecture and the Gifu gasshô-zukuri hamlet of Ogimachi, leaders from the outset identified one of the local movement's goals as creation of a town that would retain its young people, and plans for tourism development were justified by reference to their potential to reverse depopulation. Over the course of nearly six decades, each town's preservation programs have been successful in economic terms, dramatically increasing visitor numbers and shifting the weight of economic activity toward the hospitality industry. Less clear is whether such programs' successes have effectively stemmed the outflow of population from these rural towns, or rather have in effect benefited from a "depopulation dividend" by which demographic changes heighten the appeal of the rural areas in which the sites are found. In each site, one sees a troubled relationship between population stability and environmental sustainability. In Tsumago between 1967 and 1972, the annual number of visitors grew from 17,000 to 541,000, a dramatic increase that put overwhelming pressure on the town's physical and social infrastructure. In Ogimachi, the movement's economic success was similarly dramatic, but as recognition of the town's picturesque architecture earned it designation as a World Heritage Site, increased demand for visitor-centered facilities prompted construction of a substantial highway close to the old hamlet's center. At a glance, it seems Ogimachi's intrusive development has not delivered a depopulation dividend, while Tsumago's pioneering protection schemes have done so. Drawing on promotional publications, coverage of preservation activities in journalism and scholarship, and observations from participants in each town's preservation organizations, this research investigates the observable differences in the environmental effects of each town's preservation schema. Characteristics of the site itself, attitudes and aptitudes of local leaders, the nature of outside advising, and the timing of events in each location contribute to the human interventions affecting environmental stability in relation to depopulation.

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Environmental impacts of a shrinking population in Japan: towards a 'depopulation dividend'